Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Friday, January 03, 2003
Ted Galen Carpenter thinks the solution to North Korean nuclear proliferation is to threaten Japanese and South Korean proliferation. Does he have a point?

He does. But not because North Korea would be afraid of these enemies. After all, it is currently enemies with the United States of America, the strongest country in the world. Why would it be more afraid of a nuclear-armed Japan?

The country who might respond to such pressure is China. But here's the rub, and the reason why Korea is such a complicated game: how eager are our allies in Asia for a nuclear-armed confrontation with China? If the answer is "not very" then it seems to me China has the stronger card here, able to bribe our allies to pressure the United States to back out of the region in exchange for Chinese pressure - the only pressure likely to be successful - to get rid of the North Korean nuclear program.

This is a classic Cold War game of nuclear chicken. In a game of chicken, the craziest guy wins, because the craziest guy is the last one to flinch. Or, rather, the guy whom the other players think is the craziest guy wins. Pretty much everyone concerned thinks North Korea is the craziest guy in this game. They have little to lose, after all, and they have virtually no information about the outside world. This puts them at an advantage in the game. (Game theory digression: a peculiarity of the game of chicken is that the most knowledgeable player is at a disadvantage. Illustrated by way of an extreme case: Zeus plays chicken against a mortal. Zeus knows all, and the mortal knows that Zeus knows all. The mortal therefore resolves not to flinch under any circumstances, confident that, since Zeus knows his resolve with certainty, Zeus will have to flinch. And, indeed, Zeus does know this, and does flinch, because Zeus knows that nothing will disabuse the mortal of the confidence of his syllogism. Similarly, in the case of U.S. v. North Korea, North Korea loses nothing by having the U.S. able to read all of its communications, so long as it is truly resolved to acquire nuclear weapons. They have, after all, declared their resolve publicly. It would only serve their interests for the U.S. to have no ambiguity about (a) the fact that they own the weapons, and (b) the fact that they intend to keep those weapons even at the cost of potential nuclear war. To the extent that this is truly a game of chicken - i.e. if neither side flinches, all die, which is of course not literally true in this case - that ends the game: the U.S. will fold. End of game-theory digression.)

But this isn't a bi-lateral game. Japan, South Korea and China are the other players. North Korea may be the tail wagging China's dog; China may not particularly want a confrontation with the U.S. at this time, and North Korea may be pushing them into one. On the other hand, China may be in a strong position vis-a-vis North Korea, and want us to think they have limited maneuvering room to change the Hermit Kingdom's behavior. (Since China is playing poker, not chicken, giving the other side perfect information about its strategy puts them at a considerable disadvantage.) And Japan and South Korea's relations with the United States and China - and assessment of their relative importance to their future security - is a big factor in China's game.

So long as Japan and South Korea are looking for a patron to protect them from the big bad world, they will resist any forceful action by the United States in their theater. This is more of a problem for South Korea than Japan, but it affects both. If Japan were really likely to build go nuclear, that would give China pause, and give it reason to either (a) pressure North Korea to back down, or (b) work with America towards an international solution - backed by military force - that North Korea can't resist. But that's because a nuclear Japan is obviously a Japan willing to face potential military confrontation with China, and that is not on the Chinese agenda for the new year. But if Japan and South Korea are unwilling to take defense into their own hands, then China will know they are not willing to face the prospect of war. In which case, America cannot credibly threaten war in the region without risking losing our current allies to China, who can credibly claim to only want peace. (A little piece of Korea, a little slice of Taiwan . . . )

That's why I keep reiterating that we need stronger, more committed allies, not weaker, more dependent ones. Like it or not, we're in a great-power rivalry with China. This particular game is zero-sum: they gain, we lose. And like it or not, our economic well-being is tied up with Japan and China and East Asia generally fully as much as it is with the Middle East. Just as we can't afford to let Saddam control Saudi oil, we can't let China control, as an example, Japanese savings.

And that's why North Korea matters, even more than the question of proliferation. (Pakistan is probably a bigger proliferation threat than North Korea, and we are doing nothing about Pakistan.) We have plenty of military options for dealing with North Korea. Here are a few. (And thanks to John Derbyshire over in The Corner for linking to this particular article. Always nice to see one of my favorite weapons - the neutron bomb - trotted out for another potential tour of duty.) What we don't have are a lot of good diplomatic options. We have got to start doing the legwork now to establish an international justification for action. There should be much less resistance from Russia and France to the proposition that North Korea should be disarmed than to the similar proposition for Iraq. China will be difficult. But at least this would turn the game around a bit: now the ultimatum to China is: why are you the lone holdout standing against an international effort not to invade North Korea but to end its nuclear blackmail? After all, we acknowledge North Korea to be in the Chinese sphere of influence - so if you, China, can end their nuclear threat, please do so. If not, why are you obstructing international action?

China does not want war on the penninsula, and does not want to be isolated by the international community. They do want to separate South Korea from the United States. Doing nothing will convince the South Koreans either (a) that we are useless in defending them (since we are deterred by North Korean nukes) and therefore they should turn to China as a protector, or (b) that North Korea is not a threat (since we don't care about their nukes) in which case what are we doing on the penninsula? Either way, we lose to China. Similarly, taking unilateral action without involving South Korea - or issuing an ultimatum to South Korea to stiffen their spines or lose American favor - could well backfire and push them away from America, and ultimately into Chinese arms. We need to take the threat seriously, as we did with Iraq, putting the military pieces in place to take credible action to eliminate the North Korean military - not just the reactor: the whole military. And, simultaneously, we need to build an international consensus demanding that North Korea denuclearize and admit weapons inspectors to confirm denuclearization, or face military action with international blessing.

I'm going to try to stop harping on North Korea next week. But it would help if there were some good news to make me less worried. Meantime, I'll stick with my appointed role as worry-wart on this topic.